Day after day after day, Jallen Messersmith came home from elementary school sobbing.
Day after day after day, they’d call him names and taunt him and shove him around because he was passive and shy and … different.
So he’d hang out with girls more, because they were nicer to him and he was more comfortable with them. But that only intensified the targeting.
“I just felt trapped,” he said. “Everything that I would do was just making it worse and worse.”
So his parents finally thought it best he get a reprieve by home-schooling him for a few years before he went to Blue Springs High.
“It just got to the point where I didn’t know where to turn,” he said.
Basketball became one of the places, though, and it proved to be his haven and salvation.
It was a place he could turn and just be, and a place he could expect to be judged only on how hard he played.
It was the place where he began considering that he didn’t have to consent to others trying to make him feel inferior.
And it was a place that gave him a voice.
All of which helps explain this fascinating juxtaposition at Benedictine, a Catholic university in northeast Kansas where Messersmith played the last three seasons after telling his teammates he was gay, a matter that became public knowledge nearly two years ago and cast him as the first known active and openly gay college men’s basketball player.
“I don’t know how or why, but it worked out,” he said, smiling, before Benedictine beat Culver-Stockton 83-63 on Thursday night in the final home game of his career.
It wasn’t always simple here, of course.
There was the rainbow-flag flap last fall, when school administrators asked Messersmith to remove from his window that symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride.
Messersmith and his family were rankled at the time, but he expresses no resentment of that now and instead raves about how he’s been embraced at the university: from teammates to theology teachers … even as he sorts out his own religious views.
“I have my own faith life,” said Messersmith, an accounting major. “It’s not exactly a Catholic faith life. It’s somewhere in the spectrum.”
Considering the Catholic stance of condemning homosexuality but calling for gays to be treated respectfully, this is all a bit complicated for Benedictine, which prefers to steer its coaches and administrators to a general statement of support.
As for Benedictine’s opponents, Messersmith insists he’s had no issues — and his 6-foot-7 frame and rugged game suggest doing so might not be well-considered.
Messersmith entered the game Thursday leading the 19th-ranked Ravens in blocked shots with 62, rebounds with 5.4 a game and quite likely in floor burns and bruises as the reigning conference defensive player of the year.
He had nine points and five rebounds on Thursday as Benedictine, 22-7, inched closer to a berth in the NAIA Division I men’s tournament at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City.
“I’m the guy who does everything that nobody wants to do,” he said, smiling and adding, “I’m not someone who takes anything, and I leave it out on the court.”
As for coming out off the court, Messersmith knows some wonder why he needed to share this with teammates and let it be known otherwise.
It’s pretty simple, really.
For one thing, he didn’t want to hide inside himself and live a lie.
“Not telling people was hard because you were almost trying to be a fake person, trying to constantly be something that I wasn’t,” he said. “It kind of goes back to the whole bullying thing: I was trying to change myself for other people and it wasn’t doing anything productive.”
For another, it was especially important to him as part of a team — which depends on trust and camaraderie and chemistry.
But Messersmith had only a vague notion to let it be known before teammate R.J. Demps was killed in a car accident in December 2011.
Before then, maybe Messersmith would just “fake it until I make it,” he recalled feeling, and “just do what I have to do to get through.”
“But that shook me: I didn’t want that to happen to me and have all the people that cared about me and all these people who thought they knew who I was … (find out) I was keeping secrets,” he said.
Telling his parents, Tim and Chantelle, was easy, in part because they had long known (even if it hadn’t been explicitly stated) and he knew he could count on their love and support.
But he was “petrified” as his sophomore year closed in, not knowing how to tell teammates.
Knowing he wanted to share this but wasn’t sure how to proceed, his mom grooved it for him by telling teammate Brett Fisher’s mother, who then asked if it was OK to tell Brett.
“She did the hardest part for me, and he was super-cool about it,” Messersmith said, adding a point that might be the most essential element of friendship. “I know everything about him, and he knows everything about me.”
Then Messersmith picked spots to tell other teammates, careful not to make this a carnival, never going out of his way to broadcast it but discreetly telling them.
And finding peace as he eased forward.
Turns out it was way harder to get to that place than it was to get past it and ever since.
“It was like lifting a gi-mungous weight off his shoulders,” his father, Tim, said. “His teammates and his coach are absolute Godsends to him.”
But there was another substantial reason Messersmith needed it known, even if he’s not seeking the spotlight and doesn’t want to talk about this with anyone who doesn’t want to talk to him about it.
While he believes that the time is imminent where this sort of thing is a non-story, and that then no one should need to say they’re gay any more than they need to say they’re straight, that time isn’t yet here for so many trapped in their own bodies — the hopeless and voiceless who need hope and voice.
Even if it’s just one person, his mother said, that’s enough.
“I was that kid; I was the kid who had no voice,” he said. “The whole reason was to show … you can do it.”
And that there is life after bullying.
“I definitely wouldn’t change it,” he said. “I didn’t like it, but it made me the person that I am today.”